|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Parisian tonesThere was more than diplomatic finess to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's visit to Paris, reports Sherine Bahaa
"There was not a single mistake he made during the visit," commented one Western diplomat in evaluating Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's first official visit to France last week.
Much was expected from the meeting between French President Jacques Chirac and the young Syrian president. The two leaders had met twice before when late President Hafez Al-Assad was grooming his son to take over his post. When Syria's ruler for three decades died a year ago, Chirac was the only Western president attending his funeral, establishing "a high quality of relations" with the country's new leader.
Ahead of Assad's arrival in Paris, however, there were worries the visit might not be smooth. Prior to the visit, influential pro-Israel Jewish groups in France launched a campaign in leading French newspapers criticising earlier statements by Assad in which he said Israeli society was "more racist than the Nazis." Other columnists and commentators concentrated on Syria's human rights record and the fact that the young leader had not carried out any major political or economic reforms following his father's death.
Arriving in Paris with his young wife, Asmaa, Assad, according to most observers, managed to impress his hosts, even in the most critical moments. Unlike his father, who rarely travelled abroad, let alone appear in public with his wife, Assad made it a point to hold as many meetings as possible with representatives of the French political and businesses communities. During a meeting with French parliamentarians, he was responsive to all questions, confirming his commitment to gradual reform.
Yet, a smile by Bashar in response to unexpected protests by a number of right-wing councillors during an honourary meeting at the Paris Municipality was the act mostly praised by both the French and Arab press. As he was about to deliver his speech, three councillors stood up with signs that read "Assad: anti-Semite." Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe also gave Assad a cold reception and declined to shake hands with the Syrian leader in front of the cameras. Yet, he stood calmly, exchanging smiles with his wife, while security men escorted the protesters outside.
Upon his arrival, nearly 6,000 supporters of Israel and representatives of French Jewish groups demonstrated to protest Assad's visit. Another smaller protest was held by exiled Lebanese right-wing groups who called for the release of their countrymen allegedly held for years in Syrian prisons.
According to Syrian officials, the president's advisers had considered postponing the long-scheduled visit to France in light of expected protests. Yet, it was Bashar who had reportedly insisted on going ahead with the visit. In preparation, he gave two lengthy interviews to Le Figaro and French Television, in which he sought to counter the disapproval stirred by his statements on Israel at the latest Arab summit in Amman four months ago and during the unprecedented visit by Pope John Paul II to Damascus in May. As usual, Bashar was very meticulous in his choice of words. While not altering any of his focal points in criticising Israel and its illegal occupation of Arab land, he refrained from using the word "Nazi."
Observers also interpreted Syria's decision three weeks ago to redeploy thousands of its troops posted in Lebanon as another good-will gesture ahead of the visit.
Such moves were clearly appreciated by the French president, who reciprocated by confirming his country's support of Syria's demand for Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights during a welcoming speech.
Observers also noted a more conciliatory tone in the Syrian president's remarks on ongoing efforts to restore calm in the occupied Palestinian territories. After earlier criticism in the government-controlled Syrian press of the report issued by former US Democratic Senator George Mitchell, Assad said in France that it could be a good basis for the future, as long as it did not ignore the main principles of the Middle East peace process. Those principles are United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, calling upon Israel to withdraw from all Arab territories it occupied in 1967.
Assad blamed Israel for changing the rules of the talks. "The principle of land in exchange for peace, which has been approved by the international community, has been replaced by the Israelis with the principle of peace imposed by force," he said. He also accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of pushing the region towards a new war due to his belief that force was the only way to deal with Israel's Arab neighbours. Assad also confirmed that Syria's recognition of Israel will inevitably come when a peace deal is concluded.
Chirac called for religious tolerance in his welcoming speech, in a clear reference to Assad's statements that angered the pro-Israel lobby. "In this area of the world [the Middle East], the cradle of the three religions of the Book, peace will not exist without mutual respect for all communities and faiths," said Chirac.
The French president also pointed out the importance of economic and political reform in Syria, as a step towards concluding the long-awaited Syrian-European partnership.
According to French officials, Assad had to definitively confirm that the process of reform has not been abandoned. Some French analysts blamed the slow pace of reform on the "old guards" surrounding the new Syrian leader -- a clear reference to the top officials who accompanied Assad's father throughout most of his 30 years in power.
All in all, for Syrian officials, the visit was successful. "The visit achieved even more than our optimistic expectations," said one Syrian diplomat.
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